Dances with Zwick
The new Tom Cruise movie, The Last Samurai, is so gorgeous to look at that cinematographer John Toll could fairly claim to be the real star of the picture. His stunning vistas of Mount Fuji and computer-generated-imagery-assisted views of 19th-century Yokohama give the movie a visual tranquility that parallels the tranquility that Cruise’s character, Capt. Nathan Algren, finds in Japan. In fact, tranquility is The Last Samurai’s most prominent feature; if it were any more tranquil, it probably would slip into a coma.
The movie was written by John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and director Edward Zwick as a sort of hybrid of Dances with Wolves and Lost Horizon. It aspires to be an intelligent epic, but Zwick and company seem under the impression that most of the intelligence is on their side of the camera—after all, a movie that has to tell us what year it is three times in the first half-hour (“San Francisco, 1876”; “Yokohama, 1876”; “Tokyo, 1876”) isn’t giving the audience a lot of credit for brains.
It’s in San Francisco that we first meet Algren, a disillusioned Civil War veteran. Algren, drunk with whiskey and self-loathing, is reduced to promoting Winchester rifles at a sort of 1870s trade show. There’s bad blood between Algren and his former commander, Col. Bagley (played by Tony Goldwyn in full Snidely Whiplash mode). Even so, Bagley introduces Algren to some Japanese diplomats who are looking for experienced soldiers to train their young emperor’s army in the Western ways of war. The job pays $500 a month, much more than Algren gets shilling for Winchester, so he takes it. He tells Bagley: “You want me to kill Jappos for $500, I’ll do it. But you, Colonel, sir—I’d kill you for nothing,” and any student of Screenwriting 101 can guess how that line is going to pay off.
In Japan, Algren finds himself training a bunch of young conscripts to put down a rebellion against the Emperor Meiji by an army under the great samurai Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). In a skirmish with Katsumoto’s forces, Algren is taken prisoner. He’s treated with courtesy and honor—in fact, he becomes an object of study (“I want to know my enemy,” says Katsumoto).
Algren studies Katsumoto in return, and in “the way of the samurai” he finds the purpose to his life that was missing before. He ends up switching sides and fighting with Katsumoto against his enemies in the government.
There’s a foundation of historical truth to The Last Samurai. The character of Katsumoto is based on a real person, Saigo Takamori, leader of the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. Originally a supporter of the Meiji government, Saigo became disillusioned with the direction set by the young emperor’s advisers and opposed their reforms and centralizing influence.
Although his Samurai army was badly outnumbered and completely outgunned by the Western-trained government forces, Saigo became a hero in defeat, a symbol of devotion to principle against all odds.
There’s irony in The Last Samurai that goes beyond the title (Saigo/Katsumoto wasn’t the “last” samurai—not by a long shot) and the fact that in real life, the Satsuma Rebellion had to get by without the services of a handsome American movie star. The rebellion was, in fact, an intensely conservative and isolationist movement—not the kind of thing you’d normally expect Hollywood to celebrate. That’s probably why the movie keeps the way of the samurai, which so enthralls Algren, comfortably vague and photogenic. Katsumoto’s dialogue and Algren’s journal entries seldom rise above fortune-cookie homilies; I half expected Katsumoto to call Algren “Grasshopper.”
Besides Toll, the cinematographer, Watanabe is the main reason to see The Last Samurai. A major star in Japan for nearly 20 years, Watanabe has a virile, magnetic charm reminiscent of Yul Brynner during the 1950s, when Brynner was at his most exotic. Watanabe is lucky that Cruise is one of the most generous co-stars (just ask Dustin Hoffman or Cuba Gooding Jr.); Cruise (who also co-produced) lets Watanabe have the focus of the film, and he holds our attention as easily as Katsumoto holds Algren’s.